Mitch Richmond: the Under-Appreciated Kings Legend

“Who hell are you trying to be!? Mitch Richmond!?”

When I played Parochial Athletic League basketball in Sacramento at Presentation grade school, the assistant coach of my teams during my 4-8th grade years (the team, akin to any PAL or CYO team, was usually coached by dads, and thus, I had the same coaches in grade school all 5 years at Presentation), used to shout this out to us when he felt one of us was ball-hogging or trying to do much on the floor. He was a native born Colombian and his thick accent made him pronounce the future NBA Hall of Famer’s name as “Meech Reechmond” which would garner snickers from us as ignorant adolescent kids. He usually would follow his statement with him taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes in frustration before he sat down back on the bench during a drill or scrimmage period, and we continued to play or do a drill, sometimes taking in what he said, but most of the time forgetting about it like most things adults said to us during this age.

I understood his reference to the Kings star during this adolescent period of my life: Richmond was the biggest star on Sacramento’s only professional sports team at the time. It was a reference all of us on the team understood because Richmond was always on the front page of the Sacramento Bee sports section from October through April and was on every Kings billboard ad throughout the metro (hell, the first Kings ad I remembered when I moved from Spokane to Sacramento was one that featured Richmond and Walt Williams; God, I loved Walt Williams). Plus, Michael Jordan was too cliche, and I’m sure he wanted to use a reference that was a bit more clever than simply referencing the greatest basketball player of all time.

But in retrospect, his reference was pretty deep (though I wonder if he really knew it). During his time in Sacramento, Richmond WAS the Kings. He was mainly responsible for the Kings’ success (which included the first playoff victory in Sacramento in 1995-1996) and his time in Sacramento proved to be a tenure that will be hard to duplicate by any player in Kings history (though Cousins may be able to, but he still has a long way to go). And yet, as time goes on, Richmond sort of goes forgotten or at the very least under-appreciated in Kings fandom lore. People remember C-Webb and Bibby and Peja and Vlade and White Chocolate and treat those players and that era with the up-most devotion. And rightfully so. Those players were part of the Kings’ most successful period in franchise history (or at least when they were named the Kings; I know they had some success with Oscar Robertson as the Rochester and Cincinnati Royals but god that was in the 60’s and I’m only 29).

But keep this in mind: without “The Rock” there is no C-Webb. There is no Rick Adelman. There are no playoff victories. There are no Western Conference Finals or Bibby’s big shot or Game 6 or epic Oral Histories by Jonathan Abrams.

Without Richmond…the Kings might be in Anaheim or Seattle already.

When Richmond was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014, I was initially a bit perplexed by the decision. After all, Richmond certainly didn’t have the “street cred” that screamed Hall of Famer. His best years in Sacramento consisted of him making the playoffs only once, and when he was part of “Run TMC” in Golden State with Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin, he was obviously the third banana behind Mulln and Hardaway in terms of popularity (hence, the reason he was traded to Sacramento for Billy Owens). Richmond only played in the playoffs 4 times (2 with Golden State, 1 with Sacramento and 1 with the Lakers) and when he won a NBA title with the Lakers, he was primarily a bench player, as he only played 4 total minutes during that 2002 Lakers title run.

But then I considered two things: his statistical performance and his impact on basketball in Sacramento.

First off, statistically, Richmond’s career in Sacramento was damn impressive. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1988-1989 with Golden State where he averaged 22 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.2 apg,  and shot 46.8 percent from the field and had a PER (player efficiency rating) of 17.2. He made the All-Star team six times in a row (from the 1992-1993 season through the 1997-1998 season), which included All-Star MVP honors during the 1994-1995 season. While he never was a first-team All-NBA player, he did earn All-NBA second team honors three times (1993-1994; 1994-1995 and 1996-1997) and All-NBA third team twice (1995-1996 and 1997-1998).

Richmond also was one of the first real superstars too who made his name as a “3-point sniper” as well. In the old NBA days, superstar wing players were known (and sometimes encouraged) to take it to the rim or focus as mid-range-centered shooters. 3-point shooters mainly specialized in that and that alone, as evidenced by the Dell Curry’s, Dennis Scott’s and Dale Ellis’ of the day. However, Richmond proved to make the 3-point shot a heavy part of his game, as he is 33rd all time in 3 point makes (1,326), 41st in attempts (3,417) and 63rd in career 3-point percentage (38.8 percent). And he did this as the primary scorer during his Kings and Wizards days (but most especially Kings). Maybe Stephen Curry looked to his father for influence on his 3-point shot, but without a doubt, Richmond’s emphasis on the 3-ball helped paved the way for Steph and other current NBA stars to use the 3 ball as part of their skill set (and not solely be defined by it).

Richmond played for four NBA teams in his career, but while some people would argue that he is most known for his “Run TMC” days in Golden State, I would argue that his impact in Sacramento was exponentially greater. The Warriors had two established stars in Hardaway and Mullin and coach Don Nelson also had a great influence in terms of helping the Warriors play a style of ball that catered to their strengths during this era (and during the 2006-2008 “We Believe” era with the Warriors as well). But when Richmond was traded to Sacramento, many felt that the move was going to be a career killer. Prior to Richmond, the last Kings player to play in the All-Star game was Otis Birdsong in 1980-1981 when the franchise was still in Kansas City. The Kings hadn’t made the playoffs since 1985 (their first season in Sacramento) when Richmond arrived in Sacramento in 1991, and they hadn’t won a playoff game since 1981, when they went to the Western Conference Finals (and as pointed out in the Birdsong reference, they were still in Kansas City). It was thought that Richmond could fade into obscurity, since Sacramento wasn’t the kind of franchise nor market that would help him elevate his career.

Well, “The Rock” bucked that train of thought and then some.

In 517 games as a King, Richmond averaged 23.3 ppg on 45.1 shooting from the field. He put up an effective field goal percentage of 50.6 percent (higher than his tenures in Los Angeles, Washington and even Golden State), he shot 40.4 and averaged 4.8 3-point attempts per game, and also 3.9 rebound and 3.0 assist per game as a King as well. And to put these numbers in perspective, “The Rock” did this as the Kings main and sometimes “only” offensive option on the floor. He averaged 37.8 minute per game and his career usage rate with the Kings was 27.0 percent (highest of any of his stops). Richmond’s 50.4 win shares and 38.3 offensive win shares accumulate with the Kings further illustrates his impact on the Kings during his seven years there. And though he played in Sacramento almost twice as long as he did in Golden State or Washington (where he played 3 seasons apiece), his time in Sacramento had more impact, as his win shares per 48 was higher in Sacramento (12.4 percent) than Golden State (10.1) and Washington (8.8). The same proved to be true with his PER as well as his 18.4 PER was higher in Sacramento than in Golden State (17.4) and Washington (15.8) . The Kings needed Richmond to have any semblance of success as a basketball team, and Richmond delivered time and time again much to the delight of the organization and the fans of Sacramento.

1996-1997 may have been statistically his best season. He made the All-Star team and he averaged a career high 25.9 in 38.6 minutes per game, shot 45.4 percent from the floor and 42.8 percent from beyond the arc, and posted a PER of 21.6 (a career high) and 10.8 total win shares (another career high). But the Kings struggled with consistency roster-wise as well as internal coaching issues. Starting power forward Brian Grant only played 24 games, Olden Polynice began his career decline, Lionel Simmons and Duane Causwell, former Kings standouts, displayed that they were done as NBA players, and though Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was supposed to have an impact after being acquired from Denver, he never really meshed with the Kings roster like Tyus Edney and Sarunas Marciulionis the previous season. Gary St. Jean was fired after a 28-39 record, and Eddie Jordan (who later took their reigns for one disastrous year ala Keith Smart style) only helped the Kings win 4 of their last 12 games for a record of 34-48 overall. The turmoil and regression was a disappointment, as the Kings seemed to waste what was Richmond’s best statistical season of his career.

But, while 1996-1997 was better individually, the 1995-1996 season proved to be the most defining and memorable season for Richmond and Kings fans (until the Adelman era of course). Richmond’s numbers were still impressive (23.1 ppg, 44.7 FG percentage, 19.2 PER), but the Kings finished 39-43 and earned a playoff series against the heavily favored Seattle SuperSonics, who ended up losing to the Chicago Bulls in the Finals.

The Sonics were expected to smoke a Kings team that looked like Richmond and a band of misfits. The Sonics had Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in the peaks of their careers, and were filled with excellent complementary players like Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf and Nate McMillan off the bench. George Karl was a playoff-seasoned coach whose coaching style was much more refined than the “play-call” heavy St. Jean. And Key Arena was one of the toughest venues to play at in the NBA for opposing teams. With “The Glove” guarding Richmond, the Kings looked doomed.

And then Game 2 happened.

Despite getting outplayed and losing 97-85 in game 1, Richmond came out gunning in Game 2. Despite getting all kinds of defensive attention from Payton and the Sonics, “The Rock” carried the Kings to a 90-81 upset, scoring 37 points on 13 of 22 shooting while also nabbing 4 boards and 4 assists. And while his offensive impact was obviously noted, when one watches the game again on tape, Richmond’s defensive impact was vastly underrated. Though he was not known as a defensive player in his career, Richmond relished the big stage in his first playoff appearance in Sacramento. Richmond matched up on the Glove and in a surprising fashion, “The Rock” shut down Payton, not vice versa as the experts predicted. Payton only scored 10 points on 4 of 12 shooting, and Richmond helped spark the Kings defense to help them outscore the Sonics 25-14 in the 4th quarter, which ultimately led to the win. And what made this offensive-defensive performance even more remarkable? Richmond played all 48 minutes of this game.

Without a doubt, Game 2 against the Sonics is something basketball fans should always mention whenever anyone wants to talk about Richmond. Considering the circumstances and the roster of the Kings, Richmond leading the Kings to this kind of road win against the eventual Western Conference champs was the stuff of mythical legend. Yes, the Kings lost the series (though they did give the Sonics all they could handle in a 96-87 Game 3 loss at Arco where the crowd was absolutely lit following their game 2 win). But Richmond did all he could to keep the Kings in the series against the Western Conferences’ top seed, not an easy feat, especially considering the Sonics ended up sweeping the Rockets in the next round. He averaged 21 ppg on 44.4 percent shooting and had a PER of 16.7 for the series, and he led the Kings to their first playoff win in 15 years and first ever in Sacramento history.

And of course…he had Game 2.

After the 1997-1998 season, the Kings knew that they had gone as far as they could with Richmond as the team’s star. With a new ownership, new front office and new coach, the Kings dealt Richmond to the Wizards for Chris Webber which ended up being the key move that changed the Kings fortunes as a franchise in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Richmond unfortunately gets recognized more for this trade than his actual accomplishments as a King, and that’s unfair. Richmond proved that a superstar could play in Sacramento and could lead the Kings to the playoffs. Yes, he only made the playoffs once, but the Kings front office and a lot of bad luck didn’t help things. What if Bobby Hurley never got in that car crash? What if Lionel Simmons was healthy? What if the Kings stopped drafting physical forwards who had no offensive skills whatsoever (Michael Smith and Michael Stewart)? What if Brian Grant stayed? What if the Kings had a decent coach? Not a lot of players could have handled the adversity Richmond faced in Sacramento, but Richmond not only handled it, but played above it. His fortitude in Sacramento is the reason why stars like Vlade Divac and Webber agreed to come to Sacramento. It’s the reason why Demarcus Cousins stays with the Kings (and hopefully continues to stay). It’s the reason why Richmond is in the Hall of Fame.

If Richmond can make it work in Sacramento, if he can make six All-Star games and make the All-NBA team multiple times as a King, if he can lead them to a playoff series and win despite a meager roster situation, then any other star can with the Sacramento Kings as well. Success just isn’t exclusive to the Celtics, Lakers, Spurs and now Warriors and Cavs.

In some ways, I always felt Richmond got robbed of some legacy by the Kings playing in Sacramento rather than Kansas City. Richmond was a legend at Kansas State, and I could have seen the Kansas City community really honoring Richmond in ways I think Sacramento never could. Richmond would have been a local legend whose name would still be spoken in reverence in the KC community, even during the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the Kings had their great competitive run. Instead of being a secondary star to Webber and Divac and Bibby and Williams, Richmond would have been the King Kansas City fans would have adored the most. Because not only did he have local ties, but he also had the kind of composure that Midwest and Kansas City-citizens gravitate toward. He was tough, he was always composed, and he gave a professional effort night in and night out. Richmond would have changed the perspective of professional basketball in Kansas City if the Kings were still in Sacramento. He was that kind of “Midwest” player.

And furthermore, he is friendly as hell. One of my favorite moments was during the Kings “Draft 3.0” when the amateur stat guys are giving their analysis on potential picks in the 2014 draft and though it’s obvious Richmond is a bit confused on what’s going on, he at the end gives them all encouragement for their hard work. Some NBA players could have just shooed them off (we didn’t see Shareef Abdur Rahiem, who was also in the room, say anything positive). But Richmond seems to be the kind of genuine guy who knows hard work when he sees it and recognizes it when it’s deserved. For amateurs who are trying to break into the industry, that kind of feedback and encouragement is invaluable not to mention motivational.

I didn’t always grow up a Kings fan. And I admit, I probably didn’t give Richmond enough credit during his time in Sacramento. But as I look back, Richmond is probably my favorite King from the past. Not only did he have the most impact statistically out of any player in Sacramento, but he got the Kings to respectability, and got the gears in motion for what would eventually be that string of success after he was traded to Washington.

And let’s remember who he was a player: a shooter, strong off the drive, an excellent free throw shooter and capable of big defensive performances and moments as evidenced in the video below:

Cheers Mitch. Maybe Sacramento is mixed in their appreciation for you, but you got a devout fan here in Kansas City.

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